MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Vidor, Texas, population 11,440, has a long history of KKK activity. Nearly all of the residents there are white. Vidor was in the news in the 1990s for resisting federal attempts to integrate a public housing development. All the black residents were driven out of the city after Klansmen in full regalia staged marches, cross burnings and fundraisers to keep Vidor white.
It was Vidor's racist reputation that sparked photographer Dave Anderson's interest in the town. But when he went there, he found something else. His book of photographs of Vidor is called Rough Beauty. Dave Anderson joins me now from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. DAVE ANDERSON (Photographer): Thanks, Madeleine.
BRAND: And while we talk, people listening can go to npr.org to see some of your photos. We have them posted there online.
Tell me more about why you wanted to take photos in Vidor, Texas.
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, my initial interest was, in fact, this kind of crazy history I'd heard about. And I was curious what exactly made up a Klan town. I came across some Mormons and I figured, you know, Mormons are working every door in town. And I asked, do you know any Klan houses? You know, and they're like, oh yeah, and they sent me to this one place on the outskirts of town. And I went there. And sure enough, it was a Klan property. It had Klan signs and it had a burned out cross on there.
So I did look for it at first. But you know, generally I just wasn't seeing that with the consistency that I had expected. And I got a lot more interested in just the people and their resiliency and the sort of makeshift manner of keeping going in what is essentially a very permanent brand of American poverty.
BRAND: But there are a couple photos of people who look a little scary, I have to say.
Mr. ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. There's some tough looking characters in the photos.
BRAND: And one of them is drinking a beer and he's got a tattoo of a cross on his chest. And so...
Mr. ANDERSON: That's a father and son, and the mother and sister. And they're standing on the deck of their trailer. They look like they were, you know, just regular guys relaxing after work and having a beer. And it seemed like a pretty typical moment in Vidor. And the father, the man on the right in the photo wearing shorts and showing off his muscles, turned to his son and said take off your shirt, show him what you're made of, or something along those lines. He was very proud of his son being sort of a buff, you know, young guy. And the son put on his shades and grabbed a bear and was chugging it. And that was the moment they wanted to show in their family.
And I liked how the women were kind of just looking on and just witnessing it all. They assumed, I think, that they weren't in the picture. But I thought actually the - I like those moments where the onlookers are witnessing the action too.
BRAND: You are a Northerner from an upper middle class family, and you went down to Vidor, to this town in the South, in the Deep South. How could you relate to the people there? How could they relate to you?
Mr. ANDERSON: I think that what makes it easier for me to connect is that I don't pretend to be anything I'm not. You know, I wore clothing and dressed in a style that would immediately peg me as from out of town. And I think people understood me to be a pretty straight shooter. I would tell them exactly what I was up to, and if they asked me if I was there to shoot the Klan, I'd say, well, you know, if someone in a uniform comes marching past, I'm going to photograph them. But I'm photographing what I'm seeing. And so far what I'm seeing are a lot of folks trying to make do with what they've got.
BRAND: One of those photos that really struck me as something that could have been taken in the 1930s is one called Jug Riding.
Mr. ANDERSON: Jug Riding is a photograph of a whole bunch of children gathered around a wooden barrel that is elevated in the air with rope. That was a family that I spent a fair amount of time with. Everything on the grounds of that home was pretty much made by the dad, sort of cobbled together, the house he'd built and the barrels he had hung up, and they had a trampoline, and they had all these animals running all over. And I thought that place and that picture really captured a lot of what the town was about. And they were making do with basically a bunch of animals and whatever dad could cobble together. And it was one of the happiest families I have ever come across. And I was, you know, really taken with them.
BRAND: This one also stands out in your book because it is a happy photo, because it does show people who are happy and having a good time. And so many of these photos don't. They're really quite sad and moving.
Mr. ANDERSON: I do err on the side of taking photos of people in serious moments. I think smiles are often a bit of a mask. Everyone smiles for the camera, and I'm not waiting for that moment. I'm waiting for the moment when people give a kind of pensive look.
BRAND: Talk about the photo of Ray Wilson. That's close to the front of the book. And here's a photo of a man looking directly into the camera, and he is not smiling. He is sitting - I guess at a table or a desk?
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. I happened to come across him on a day where he was - his wife had left him relatively recently. And he was, I think, in a pretty somber mood. But there's also other elements of the picture that I think also really sum up the town, and why I liked him as well.
People often look at that and think it's a bar, but it's actually a room he built onto his house just out of plywood. And there's a lot of little details in it. One that I really enjoy is the fact that off to the left of it, by the electrical outlet, you can see that he actually signed the wall, as though it was his own piece of art. Ray really did have a sort of graphic sensibility. If you look at everything arranged on his desk and on the wall, it's all very well laid out. This was his game room, and he was really proud of having built it. I think that also speaks to the kind of handmade nature of the place and - but the limitations that people had in what they could build.
BRAND: So you went into Vidor with a certain notion of what you'd find, and you emerged with something entirely different.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, when I described the book and the project, one thing that I point out - I like to point out to people is that I didn't' tell a particular story with an ending that you can put your finger on. Someone who looked at it told me that he thought that it was more about the psychological landscape of the place, which I thought was a really nice way of putting it.
I experienced something, which was a kind of resiliency in poverty that I respected. And it's not neat and pretty. But there is, you know, something that I found beautiful in it. But there are also things that put me on edge and worried me at times as well.
The sum total of the book, I think, and the project in general, is that kind of vague feeling that in some ways is contradictory, but you know, also shows, hopefully, a respect to the people and the place that I found.
BRAND: Dave Anderson's new book of photography is called Rough Beauty.
Dave Anderson, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
Mr. ANDERSON: Thanks, Madeleine.
BRAND: Dave Anderson talks about his photos of Vidor, Texas in a narrated slideshow on our Web site. Go to npr.org.